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  • Beyond National Socialism?
  • S. Jonathan Wiesen and Geoff Eley

When Sabine Hake suggested that someone address the theme “Beyond National Socialism,” we volunteered with alacrity. We did so, however, not to defend its underlying assumption—that the Third Reich should now surrender its central place in German history—but to scrutinize it. As historians who have explored how Germans arrived at, experienced, and extracted themselves from this terrifying twelve-year period, we saw “Beyond Nazism” as a welcome provocation. Historians should always be testing the boundaries of their field; almost seventy years after the end of National Socialism, fresh perspectives might indeed complicate Nazi-centered narratives. And yet, the following essay takes a less revisionist tack. Is it even feasible in the first place to decenter National Socialism? If possible, would it be desirable? Putting a question mark at the end of our title implies no aversion to challenging scholarly norms. But what might we lose by pushing Nazism and the Holocaust prematurely toward the margins?

Most commonly, “moving beyond” National Socialism bespeaks a cris de coeur, a wish among some Germans to rid themselves of the moral, political, and financial obligations attending historical memory. While some academics might share in this desire, worrying about Nazism, its place in German history, and the state of the field clearly has a scholarly purpose. In a 2011 German History forum, six noted scholars offered measured and thoughtful suggestions about how we can decenter Nazism and the Holocaust.1 By embedding the Third Reich within broader developments in the history of politics and culture and placing it in a global context, they assert, we can move the field into new directions no longer beholden to Nazism as their structuring theme.

So far, so good. Yet the GH forum betrays a disquieting cynicism. By focusing our pedagogy and scholarship on the Third Reich, Germanists have been “indulging the public’s obsession,” “pandering” to students, and “fixating” on Nazism. Most provocatively, we continue to “genuflect” before the enormity of National Socialism “to keep our union cards.” On that basis, German historians would seem to be opportunists (we study the Third Reich because it sells) or cowards (we’re afraid not to study the period for fear of professional ostracism). While decidedly a caricature, [End Page 475] such hyperbole bespeaks real concerns. Why pay obeisance to increasingly barren scholarly conventions? “Are there empirical and ethical reasons,” asks Glenn Penny, “for moving on to new perspectives?”2

What would we lose morally, psychologically, and politically by such a shift? As most GSR readers would agree, the memory of Nazism has been crucial to the Federal Republic’s health over the last six decades; it binds the country to a parliamentary democracy that pays wrenching deference to the crimes of the 1930s and 1940s and to the goal of avoiding them in the future. If the Nazi past works as a “moral cudgel,” to use Martin Walser’s controversial phrase, it does so to the good of Germany and Europe more broadly. By holding Germany’s feet to the fire, as it were, historians continue to make vital contributions to sustaining democracy. The Third Reich is both a reminder of the potential for barbarism and an incitement to countervisions—of political and social pluralism and peaceful international relations. Even after the post-Holocaust genocides, Nazi crimes still form the main ground of this pedagogy; facing them sustains an optimism about learning from the knowledge that we gain. Pushing ourselves beyond National Socialism in those terms would mean ceding a perspective on the past that remains rife with meaning: about individual morality, political passion, hatred, cowardice, and courage. The philosophical, moral, and political legacies of National Socialism continue to haunt us. They will not easily be dismissed.

And yet the critics have a point. As scholars we are obliged to seek new perspectives. Historians, of course, have been doing this for some time. Recently, German history has been considered “from the margins”—from the vantage point of those previously consigned to the social, cultural, and political peripheries: Jews, backwoods localities, German diasporas, particularists, women, immigrants, and Afro-Germans, to cite the inventory of one insightful collection.3 That perspective...


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pp. 475-479
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